Simon Parke: Moving from the sofa to the Cabinet

11 July 2007

MARGARET THATCHER is in a restaurant with her Cabinet. The waiter enquires whether she is ready to order. She opts for the roast beef.

“And what about the vegetables?” asks the waiter.

“Oh, they’ll have what I’m having,” she replies.

It is one of the best-remembered Spitting Image sketches. But should we expect the same attitude towards Cabinet members from Gordon Brown — the man his critics call “The Gravedigger”?

The 19th-century constitutionalist Walter Bagehot described the Cabinet as the “efficient secret” of the British political system. Possibly, but the Cabinet system we know now was the offspring of circumstance. Originally, it was a mere sub-committee of the Privy Council, until the Great War. The then Prime Minister, Lloyd George, reckoned that a conflict such as this needed more efficient decision-making, and the Cabinet became the place for it. “War is too important to be left to the generals,” said Lloyd George. Today, we might add presidents and prime ministers to that list.

The Cabinet became the formal decision-making body of the executive, but it was prime ministers who were the real beneficiaries of the change. Formerly, they had been mere “first among equals”: now, with power of both appointment and dismissal, the PM was lord of all he or she surveyed. Appointments still require royal approval, of course, but Her Majesty, in this instance, is merely a rubber stamp.

Mr Blair’s attitude towards the Cabinet is well documented. He not only cut its meetings down to one a week, but also practised “sofa government” — ensuring decisions were taken at other times and by other people. The Cabinet merely gathered on Thursday mornings to find out what was going on, though they could have read it first in the papers.

Mr Brown is accused of similar practice, but by other means. We are told his Cabinet looks rather malleable and inexperienced. Some fear there are no “big hitters” such as David Blunkett or Charles Clarke, but the only people they ever laid a glove on were themselves.

Mr Brown has set himself the task of re-engaging politics with the nation. If he is to succeed, it will be because he displays a different psychology from Mr Blair.

Let the ego of the new Prime Minister so dissolve that he becomes one with the Cabinet. Let the ego of the Cabinet so dissolve that it becomes one with Parliament. Let the ego of Parliament so dissolve it becomes one with the nation. And let the ego of the nation dissolve, as it finds inspiration from its leader.

Were it thus, Mr Brown would not just be a Cabinet-maker, but a nation-maker.

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